By Tiffany Whitfield

Old Dominion University Ecological Sciences doctoral student, Zlatka Rebolledo Sánchez, is one of seven college students from across the Commonwealth of Virginia to be selected as a Virginia Sea Grant Fellow (VASG). Her research focuses on understanding salt marsh-based blue carbon in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. An international student from South America, Rebolledo Sánchez values education and the easily translatable qualities of science through community outreach. As a VASG fellow, she will be able to dive deeper into research through mentorship and professional development and use her passion for communicating science to diverse communities in the Hampton Roads region.

Originally from Venezuela, Rebolledo Sánchez ended up coming to ODU because of a tweet from Biological Sciences Assistant Professor Erik Yando who would later become her advisor at ODU. “Before that tweet I had never heard about Norfolk,” said Sanchez. “I think it's really good for scientists to connect on social media and after a couple of interviews we decided we made a good team.”

She started as a master’s student and is now entering her third year as a doctoral student. “I'm working right now in carbon of salt marshes in the lower Chesapeake Bay,” said Rebolledo Sánchez. “Actually, there is much research being done in this specific area, but I want to focus on spatial variability.” Experts in the field typically work on remote sensing at a large scale with satellite images with a focus on the geographical side in biology. 

Coastal ecosystems are at the centerpiece of Rebolledo Sánchez's research. “Salt marshes provide shoreline protection, erosion control and improve water quality, but one of the most important things that I really like is that they provide climate change mitigation,” said Rebolledo Sánchez. Salt marsh ecosystems store and sequester a lot of carbon. “It's better to have the carbon there than in the atmosphere,” said Rebolledo Sánchez's. “There are a lot of people that deny that climate change exists, or they don't understand, or they are not aware of the actual consequences that we are experiencing right now.” Her work with VASG fellowship will focus on two different things. “One is actually trying to answer my scientific questions, trying to decipher a little bit more about the carbon in salt marshes, and two I will address how to communicate effectively to different audiences,” said Sanchez. 

As a Latina woman, diversity not only matters to Rebolledo Sánchez, but she recognizes the gap in communicating effectively to people whose first language is not English “I want to also literally translate my work into Spanish,” said Rebolledo Sánchez. Her goal is to publish her work in both English and Spanish. “Virginia has more than 10% of the population who are Hispanic, but most of them speak only Spanish,” said Rebolledo Sánchez. “There is a big chunk of the population that many people are not reaching and it's very important to also translate to other countries.” Being able to translate her work to other Spanish speaking countries would make Rebolledo Sánchez even more enthused about research and communicating to diverse audiences. “We are here in Virginia, we have the local problems, local issues with sea level rise and all the flooding that we experience, and everyone is impacted,” said Rebolledo Sánchez. “Everyone needs to be aware of what is happening in English and in Spanish about how to help improve lifestyles in the world and deal with flooding.”

Sanchez was encouraged to apply to the VASG for their fellowship because of her advisor, Yando. She does research in Assistant Professor Yando’s Coastal Plant and Ecotone Ecology Lab.

Yando speaks highly of Rebolledo Sánchez. "We are thrilled that Zlatka has been chosen for this prestigious fellowship and greatly look forward to the work she will be producing in the next two years. Zlatka has worked tirelessly to ensure that coastal and salt marsh science is communicated to the public in an accessible manner. Further, this fellowship will support her research which provides some of the most robust blue carbon budgets for the southern Chesapeake Bay, while also addressing interesting conceptual and theoretical questions."

As a VASG fellow, Rebolledo Sánchez will also have a professional mentor, Alexandra Clayton from The Pew Charitable Trusts. Rebolledo Sánchez is overjoyed about all that entails the fellowship. “We had the orientation session before the start of the semester and I met all the other Virginia Sea Grant fellows and the previous ones, and I think it's a wonderful opportunity to connect and to learn about research that others are doing.” Collaboration is intrinsic to Rebolledo Sánchez and the opportunities that this fellowship presents will allow her to build bridges with people in the community while fueling her love for ecology.

Being an international student has yet to slow down Rebolledo Sánchez. She is very active on campus and in the community. She is part of the ODU International Student Advisory Board where she serves as president. Also, she is also the director of outreach of a student organization called Global Student Friendship. Incredibly, she is also ODU’s Student Government Association treasurer. “I feel like I'm serving others and I enjoy serving and making connections,” said Rebolledo Sánchez.

She works many hours every day on her research at ODU. Also, she was a teaching assistant, but she finds time to help others. “I'm really passionate about what I'm doing, my service, and my friends,” said Rebolledo Sánchez. “I think I'm working, not just with colleagues, I'm working with friends and that makes it way easier to keep going, keep producing more awesome work; it's a great reward.”

As a Monarch, Rebolledo Sánchez is thankful for the opportunities available to her and other international students. “ODU is surprising with all of the resources available to students,” said Rebolledo Sánchez. “It’s amazing how open the different offices are to the students with all of the resources available. I think the Department of Biological Sciences is great because we have amazing faculty and have found support with all of them. The network we build at ODU is something that I’m very happy about and now, that we’re an R1 institution and also with the EVMS merge I think it’s a lot of growth in the university.” 

Image above: ODU Ecological Sciences doctoral student, Zlatka Rebolledo Sánchez in the field doing research.